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From the archives

The Path of Poetic Resistance

To disarm Canada and its canon

Are Interests Really Value-Free?

A salvo from the “realist” school of Canadian foreign relations

Going It Alone

The marvellous, single-minded, doggedly strange passion of citizen scientists

Liberal Interpretations

Making sense of Justin Trudeau and his party

Curtis Gillespie

The political problem of mankind is to combine three things: Economic Efficiency, Social Justice, and Individual Liberty.
— John Maynard Keynes

The conundrum itself does not need decoding. We already know that Justin Trudeau has long been mired in an authenticity crisis — a crisis that boils down to a gap between image and reality. He became prime minister more than seven years ago, and the numbers tell us that, except for a brief spell around the 2015 election, a majority of voters believe he’s never been up to the job and think he’s still in it only because of weak opposition and a flawed first-past-the-post electoral system.

The more pressing issue is what the past and present might tell us about where Trudeau and his party plan to go from here, and what that might mean for Canada. But first it’s necessary to understand the philosophical ecosystem in which the prime minister was raised and continues to operate. Because though we might be tiring of Trudeau and his cabinet, the reality is that liberalism itself is under siege — and that is drastically changing the nature of governance everywhere. Knowing all these things may help temper future expectations. Because make no mistake: Justin Trudeau has disappointed us and will surely disappoint us again. We just don’t quite know yet how or why. It might be because he’s Justin Trudeau. It might be because he leads a tired Liberal Party. Or it might be because he’s part of a philosophy struggling to offer a compelling alternative to growing autocratic and illiberal movements. It might even be all three.

When Trudeau took over as leader of the Liberal Party of Canada on April 14, 2013, both the party and the liberal project in Canada were struggling. Stephen Harper had made no secret of the fact that one of his overarching goals in his rise to power was to eradicate the centrist Liberals and create something akin to the American political system: a right-and-left model in which conservatives and progressives, roughly speaking, battle for power. To Harper’s way of thinking, our multi-party system meant that Liberals, for decades, never had to stake out definitive terrain but could instead steal ideas from the centre-left and the centre-right, depending on the prevailing political winds. Moving to a more binary structure would force a starker choice onto voters, which Harper believed, given what he saw as the inherent moderation of Canadians, would result in a shift rightward for generations to come.

Can the prime minister offer a compelling alternative to growing illiberalism?

David Parkins

The plan appeared to have legs. As the Conservatives came to power in early 2006, the Liberals were disorganized and rudderless. And that was the good news. After Paul Martin stepped down that March, the party chose Hara and Kiri as its next two leaders: Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff nearly brought the Grits to ruin through mixed messaging and shambolic campaigning. For a time, it seemed Harper was closing in on his goal. He had a strong majority, and after Ignatieff resigned in disgrace and the NDP’s Jack Layton passed away from cancer three months after the 2011 election, Harper appeared to have no legitimate challenges to his dominance. Books were being written by esteemed pundits with such titles as The Big Shift and When the Gods Changed, the drift being that the Liberal Party was flatlining. So abject was the progressive landscape that even Jean Chrétien suggested that the New Democrats and the Liberals would likely one day merge so as to combat the ostensibly unassailable strength of the right.

Picking Trudeau seemed consistent, for many, with the self-destructive choices the party had made in Dion and Ignatieff. The general media perception of Trudeau at the time was that he was, at best, an intellectual lightweight and, more probably, something of a dolt trading on his name and a great head of hair. Scott Feschuk, writing in Maclean’s, said that evidence was emerging that Trudeau “may not be especially gifted in certain areas, such as mental thinking.” He added (with reference to the Ottawa axiom that while everyone else was playing checkers, Harper was playing chess) that “Justin Trudeau is playing chess, too — and he just stuck a bishop up his nose.” Andrew Coyne, writing in the National Post, said of Trudeau, “It is in the gulf between his intellectual reach and grasp that his reputation as a ninny has been earned.” Even the new leader’s supporters wondered about his limitations. Bob Rae (who temporarily took the Liberal reins after Ignatieff resigned and who was later appointed by Trudeau as ambassador to the United Nations) told the Globe and Mail that Trudeau was “not the smartest guy in the room.” The opinion of his intellect was so low that one of Harper’s aides noted, prior to the first 2015 election debate, that Trudeau would exceed expectations “if he comes on stage with his pants on.”

It turned out, however, that Canadians had grown tired of Harper’s chilly austerity. Yes, he was a shrewd tactician. And, yes, if you were a devotee of small government, anti-intellectualism, and deregulation, you might say he managed the country adequately. But most voters no longer saw themselves in the man from Calgary Southwest. Trudeau cycled, ran, stretched, grinned, and photo-bombed his way to a majority, energizing the country and surprising the pundits. When the governor general, David Johnston, administered the oath of office on November 4, 2015, it seemed entirely possible that this forty-three-year-old from Papineau was ushering in a fresh era of dominance for his party, while at the same time signifying that the underlying philosophy of liberalism still possessed the dynamism to drive global politics.

Let’s just say it hasn’t quite worked out that way. In either instance.

The Liberal Party of Canada is widely considered to be one of the most successful political parties in the world. It was founded in the 1860s, and it has governed for most of Canada’s existence as a nation. Since 1896, the Liberals have been in charge for eighty-six of 127 years, winning twenty-five of thirty-seven federal elections. Indeed, it’s hard to find a party anywhere that has enjoyed as much success.

Canadian liberalism has evolved along a unique path; how its development contrasts with that of the United States cannot be overstated. Allan Gregg, a long-time interpreter of Canadian politics with the CBC and a Conservative pollster, observes that a conciliatory spirit is deeply ingrained in Canadian society. “The U.S. Constitution calls for the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” he explains, “whereas the Canadian Constitution calls for peace, order, and good government. And so here you have two very different definitions of liberalism. One is that you have a government formed to protect individual rights and keep markets competitive, mostly by not interfering except in the instance of bad actors. The second kind of liberalism — Canada’s — is the one in which governments basically exist to generate stability and security. And all that is because Canada’s was a counter-revolutionary beginning, whereas America’s was revolutionary.”

Another historical perspective comes from Brooke Jeffrey, who has worked for the Liberal Party and written numerous scholarly works on Canadian politics. Canadian liberalism was flourishing in the first half of the twentieth century, she notes, but it developed a certain pragmatism and even paternalism due to the sheer geographic expanse of the country, the messiness of competing English and French influences, massive immigration from eastern Europe, and the shadow thrown by the U.S. The pursuit of stability, in other words, is part of our national origin story, and a commitment to moderation and compromise is in the party’s bones. That helps explain why it has always viewed its philosophy as being neutral enough to paint any wall without painting itself into a corner — the colour of that paint being a grey rather than black or white. “Liberals believe in intervention, if necessary,” Jeffrey says, “but not necessarily intervention.”

This flexibility has led to accusations over the decades that the Liberals have simply taken up squatter’s rights in the “mushy middle,” which was the former NDP leader Ed Broadbent’s famed characterization. There is no doubt some truth to this. But there is also truth to the position that most of the progressive legislation that defines Canada has been enacted under Liberal governments. Lester B. Pearson, for example, brought forward the Canada Pension Plan, medicare, affirmative action, a student loan program, the Canada Assistance Plan, and the forty-hour week for federally regulated workers — all without majority governments. He was also instrumental in establishing Canada’s presence on the world stage as a peacekeeper.

Pierre Trudeau first appeared in federal politics as Pearson’s justice minister. Later, as prime minister and quoting the journalist Martin O’Malley, he said that “there’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation,” when he was introducing revisions to the Criminal Code in relation to abortion, homosexuality, and divorce. It’s no overstatement to say that Pierre Trudeau helped create Canada’s reputation as a model of liberal political practice in the world.

For decades, we punched above our weight through a combination of stability and progressiveness, articulated through charismatic leadership (a run that ended with Harper on both fronts). Trudeau the Elder was central in shaping the general outlines of what constitutes Canada today: bilingualism, the modern Criminal Code, multiculturalism, Indigenous rights, the Charter, the federal structure. Say what you want about all politicians being the same, but the country feels very different under a Liberal government rather than a Conservative one.

The fundamental difference in liberal versus conservative governance has been nicely summed up by William Voegeli, a right-leaning American commentator: “A liberal is someone who thinks the world can get better, and a conservative is someone who wants to protect it from getting worse.” When you ask “More government or less government?” in Canada, those to the left will usually say more, while those to the right will usually say less. But, as Jeffrey suggests, the Liberals in the centre will always say, “It depends.”

There are many things upon which the fate of Justin Trudeau and the Liberals depends, one of those being the very state of liberalism, which is currently under siege from forces both national and global. It has been around since just after the turn of the nineteenth century, evolving over time and in different phases as a response to rapid industrialization, the advent of electoral politics, and the growth of capitalism. Millions of words have been written about liberalism, but it can be condensed into four essential principles: that human conflict is inevitable but can be channelled for good; that human beings are improvable; that abuse of power must be confronted and contained; and that the rights, hopes, and dreams of individuals must be protected by, as well as from, the state. To boil it down even further, liberalism is ultimately about acknowledging and contending with the tension between the interests of the individual and the interests of society. Therein lie two key by-products of classical liberalism: compromise and empathy.

The end of the Cold War was not the victory for liberalism that many touted at the time. On the face of it, with the dissolution of the Soviet empire, it seemed that the forces of Western democracy, and therefore liberalism, had prevailed over those of authoritarian and autocratic states (not unlike how it had prevailed over fascism at the end of the Second World War). Yet the non-profit V-Dem Institute recently noted that while there were forty-two liberal democracies in 2012, there are now thirty-four, representing just 13 percent of the world’s population. (Such numbers do not tell the whole story, of course, since numerous countries define themselves as democracies yet do not equate that system with liberalism.)

Not that everyone sees liberalism’s challenges as a bad thing. Stephen Harper, for one, believed the philosophy was akin to “moral nihilism,” a threat he characterized as a “system of moral relativism, moral neutrality and moral equivalency.” After the 2011 election, he declared liberalism as dead as disco balls and bell-bottoms. He was wrong: Canadian liberalism was merely in the process of reinventing itself. He did, however, underline the reality that liberalism’s greatest strength is also its soft underbelly, namely its aforementioned “it depends” malleability. And it is this malleability (critics would call it slipperiness) that has always been at the heart of the highs and occasionally the lows of the Liberal Party, since it has allowed for such extremes as Pierre Trudeau’s nation-building success and Stéphane Dion’s “Green Shift” failure.

Loose parameters are part of the liberal package. Trying to figure out what liberalism is is part of what makes you a liberal. It is a never-ending process of self-discovery and self-definition in relation to the social compact. But that’s a problem for Justin Trudeau, because despite its inherent flexibility, or perhaps because of it, liberalism is struggling to connect with citizens both at home and abroad. Why? Partly, it’s a problem of its own making.

As the British journalist Edmund Fawcett has noted, “The task of finding a balance between containing and empowering the state dogged the liberal democracies in the twenty-first century, by when it had become clear that denying, belittling and neglecting government’s responsibilities did not magically make them go away.” In effect, numerous liberal governments, including those in Canada, surrendered too much of the political and philosophical battle space to opposing forces, most notably the burgeoning far right. In concrete terms, the role of government has been chiselled away in both small and large chunks to appease and win swing votes, a strategy that did not always work electorally but that unquestionably empowered illiberalism. Welcome to “Stop the Steal” and the “Freedom Convoy.”

In the either-or world of autocracies and illiberalism, those operating the levers of power have fewer obstacles to overcome, whereas liberalism accepts that things are messy and that we need both choices and restrictions to succeed as individuals and societies. The current geopolitical disarray is bottomlessly complex, but in fact it’s not that hard to grasp the essence of what’s happening, who’s causing it, and what they want.

A world of diminished choice is being forced upon many. Whom does this benefit? Anti-democrats, primarily. They want to reduce choice because choice is unpredictable. Yet choice is liberal democracy in action, even if it’s flawed. As Winston Churchill reminded us, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other ones.”

This is the challenging philosophical ecosystem in which the Liberal Party is operating. While it has a long and storied connection to the noble roots of classical liberalism, it is contending with real-world pressures, such as how to keep winning votes from an increasingly splintered and tribal electorate. Right now, it appears as if the party doesn’t know whether to double down on its progressive liberalism or ditch it in favour of a bland centrism. The evidence does not indicate a party willing to embrace its own philosophy, though Jeffrey feels it would be unfair to say that not much of liberal value has happened under Justin Trudeau’s leadership, citing progress on things such as gender parity, climate change, and reconciliation. These are valid points, particularly on gender parity, says the Toronto Star ’s Susan Delacourt: “Trudeau has been uniformly successful on gender equity. The idea, even ten years ago, that we would see all the major front-line ministries held by women is just incredible. That did not happen in the Harper years.”

On the other hand, the prime minister has come under heavy criticism for being hypocritical on climate change (professing bold action while also expressly supporting the energy industry) and Indigenous issues (saying many correct things but then going on a surfing holiday to Tofino, British Columbia, instead of observing the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation). As Gary Mason pointed out in a column in the Globe and Mail in August 2022, Trudeau is “not well-liked by broad swaths of the public.” The reasons behind this dislike are not all that complicated. Mason pointed to Trudeau’s affected and inauthentic public-speaking mannerisms and alluded to how he seems to operate according to “one set of rules for him, and another for the rest of us.” Delacourt believes much of the antipathy toward the prime minister is due to the fact that men don’t like him, his performative feminism perhaps arousing antipathy in the convoy crowd.

But it’s about more than that. Many politicians are uninspiring speakers, exude privilege, and perform roles, yet they still succeed. The issue is that the daylight between Trudeau the advertisement and Trudeau the product has grown too wide to admit the possibility that there is something of genuine value behind the sell. Yes, liberalism has long been the dominant political philosophy in Canada, says Gregg, but many voters are edging away from the Liberals because they now see a party looking down on them. “There are a lot of people struggling and who have kids who can’t get a mortgage,” he explains, “and to them, Justin Trudeau is just a privileged, elitist phony.”

“Although it’s important to remember,” Delacourt points out, “the middle is the hardest place to be in politics. That’s a global problem. But, domestically, yes, I think he’s squandered his authenticity. I don’t know what the — pardon my language — fuck is wrong with his public presentation. I just don’t know why he does that. He can be a sarcastic, funny, interesting, irreverent fellow in private, but in public he looks like a Bambi in the headlights.” Delacourt feels that Trudeau is hemorrhaging integrity to such a degree that any attempt at authenticity now comes across only as sanctimoniousness. “It’s very annoying.”

Phony or not, the prime minister has made it increasingly difficult to believe he’s suited to the national and international challenges ahead, which is not to say he won’t remain in office. If the Jody Wilson-Raybould and SNC-Lavalin scandal, the WE Charity scandal, the blackface scandal, and the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation scandal didn’t bring him down, it’ll take something momentous to force him out. That’s especially the case given the weak opposition he faces. To run through this litany of missteps and realize he is still in power tells us everything we need to know about how Canadians felt attaching the title “Prime Minister” to Andrew Scheer or Erin O’Toole. Pierre Poilievre is neither of those former Conservative leaders, but it’s hard to see him changing that equation.

When Justin Trudeau strode out into the world in 2015 as our twenty-third prime minister, he seemed intent on showing everyone that Canadians were young and hip, conceivably presenting himself as who he actually was but certainly as who he thought we wanted him to be.

If Pierre made us think we were sophisticated, his son made us think we were optimists. That belief is gone, but is that wholly Justin’s fault? Because it is possible that what might seem like his often maddening equivocation is actually the most liberal thing about him. Isaiah Berlin noted that it is impossible for a liberal to ever fully reconcile the tension between individuality and belonging. Acknowledging and working within that tension is all any good liberal can do. Large-scale claims and one-size-fits-all answers are just lies, Berlin argued. Ideology might fool some or even many, but it will never actually serve society well. A true liberal, then, is someone who is always going to have to accept that achieving one major goal in life or politics means frustration at not achieving a different goal.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Justin Trudeau is actively grappling with this problem. “A larger view of liberalism is, I think, probably more instinctive in him,” Delacourt explains. “Certainly, the whole issue around Donald Trump and the U.S. and the state of democracy has affected him. But I think domestically it’s almost more an issue of atrophy. It’s one thing to have big ambitions, but the Liberals haven’t done much with them. He over-promised and has under-delivered, at least so far. And I think he’s acutely aware of that.”

Trudeau got where he is by being a deft and magnetic performer, but he is increasingly being confronted with the reality that Canadians are no longer satisfied with performance alone and would like him to do something that, you know, makes our country better. To that end, there’s not a lot of optimism. The daycare package and gender equity remain his two biggest wins, but beyond that we are left with a new haircut, outrage at Hockey Canada, and a decent showing at the Emergencies Act inquiry.

As for the broader picture, Trudeau’s liberalism feels less authentic than situational at this stage, to the point that some worry he has been overly influenced by the forces of market-first neo-liberalism. Linda McQuaig, who has been watching Canadian politics for decades and has published numerous books from her left-leaning vantage point, has always seen liberalism as rooted in the idea of the importance of the individual. But in the economic realm, too many recent Liberal governments, including those of Justin Trudeau, have moved ever closer to the ideals of market supremacy, a direction drifting noticeably outside the centre lane and signalling right as it goes.

“Both the Liberals and the NDP generally espouse positions that are in the liberal tradition,” McQuaig notes. “But today’s Liberals are economic liberals, which means they support solutions favourable to private business interests, moving away from a Keynesian public-good model toward a get-rich-quick model. Pierre Trudeau was a strong intellectual and very much a liberal. As for his son — well, I want to be fair. . . . Pierre was probably the last prime minister this country has had who acted independently of Bay Street.”

Which is a move away from a traditional liberal value of conciliation toward a neo-liberal emphasis on competition. “Canadian politics has always been about the art of the possible,” says Gregg. “Compromise in Canada isn’t a weakness; it’s a virtue. The Liberals have always exhibited what I would call a progressive liberalism geared to elevating equality and with an activist role for government. But they’ve now lost that ethos.” In other words: relinquishing the principles of classical liberalism for retail politics and talking a noble game but failing to make the country better through those principles.

Does this mean that Trudeau has no more gas left in the tank? “I’m back and forth on that,” Delacourt admits. “His rise began as a movement, a movement to change politics and change the Liberal Party. The association with Occupy, with Idle No More, feminism, gender equity, a new party focus on data collection and technology, the ties to the Barack Obama Democrats — it was all part of a movement.” That is to say, a movement about change and sunny ways. “But has it all gone down the drain? I don’t know. I’m not ready to write the obituary for him yet, but so many Liberals are angry. And a lot of people feel like he has squandered his majority and his hope-and-change energy.”

Which is what liberalism is all about, in the end. Regeneration. Reinvention. Equity. Moving forward through empathy and compromise. Making sure individuals are both empowered by and protected from the state. Has Trudeau achieved any of these things? Can he deliver before his time is up? Well . . . it depends.

It depends on whether he uses his fragile three-year ceasefire with the NDP to enact actual liberal (as opposed to Liberal) policies. What might this look like in practice? World-leading climate policy. Electoral reform. Wage equity. Affordable housing. Stronger education and health systems. In short, the building blocks of governance. The boring stuff. But the stuff that makes countries livable and humane.

Our world is under siege from forces that want to reduce choice, to reduce the number of questions so that there are fewer answers. Liberalism, on the other hand, encourages and embraces choice and messiness and variability, but it embraces these things precisely to facilitate bold and original action. It was the English theologian Thomas Fuller who, in 1650, wrote that it is always darkest before the day dawneth. A cliché perhaps, but what’s rarely considered is a disquieting implication of the saying, which is that it presupposes there will be a dawn. Sunny ways worked once for Trudeau, but we are now living in darker times — times in which the principles of liberalism, the principles behind the founding of our country, are under threat.

Justin Trudeau and the Liberal Party matter to Canada and to the world. They have a responsibility not just to their country but to their philosophy. They may or may not wake up to that fact, but when and if they do, let’s hope that dawn is even still a thing.

Curtis Gillespie has won seven National Magazine Awards for his writing on politics, sport, culture, and science.

Related Letters and Responses

Sherri Davis Wakefield, Quebec

Robert Girvan Toronto

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