Why Canada has cooled on Justin Trudeau

Why We Wrote This

Just a few years ago, Justin Trudeau was a global political rock star. Now he's struggling to ensure that his party wins Monday's elections. How did Canadians' view of their prime minister change so much so quickly?

Stephane Mahe/Reuters
Liberal Party leader and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau campaigns for the upcoming election at the Botanical Garden of Montreal, Oct. 16, 2019.

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Four years ago, Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party came into office in Canada as a powerful voice for gender equality, environmentalism, indigenous rights, and ethical politics. Today, that luster has been lost due to scandal and dissatisfaction. And as the country prepares to vote on Oct. 21, the election has been recast for many Canadians as a choice for the least bad option.

Any incumbent will have disappointed a swath of voters. But two scandals this year have been particularly damaging. The one that grabbed global headlines came this fall, after Time magazine ran a photo of Mr. Trudeau in brownface as a 29-year-old teacher. But for Canadians the SNC-Lavalin affair, in which Mr. Trudeau sought to shield a Quebec engineering firm from prosecution, was more damning. It pitted him against Jody Wilson-Raybould, his justice minister and the first indigenous person to hold the post. She was then ousted from the Liberal caucus, angering voters.

“Are voters sufficiently dissatisfied ... to vote out the Liberals? I think that’s the question,” says Livianna Tossutti, a political science professor at Brock University in St. Catharines.

After his party’s stunning victory in the last election, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau stood in front of his newly formed cabinet – half men and half women – and was asked why gender parity was so important to him.

His response: “Because it’s 2015.”

The comment generated ripples around the world and became an iconic moment in the rise of “cool Canada” – a powerful voice for gender equality, environmentalism, indigenous rights, and ethical politics. Mr. Trudeau became an international role model for progressives, especially as the path of liberalism seemed increasingly obstructed everywhere else, with the election of President Donald Trump, Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, the rise of the far-right across Europe, and the increasingly authoritarian grip of Chinese leadership.

Today Canada is still lauded on the international stage, despite growing disillusionment with the state of politics here and embarrassing scandals that have grabbed global headlines. Yet as the troubles of the world seem to deepen, or at least the perception of them, Mr. Trudeau still offers a counternarrative. And perhaps more important at home, the economy is strong: Macroeconomics would suggest any incumbent should handily take the Oct. 21 race.

So why is it that Prime Minister Trudeau doesn’t have the upcoming federal election in the bag?

The answer is as simple as that one from four years ago: Because it’s 2019.

Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 upset followed nine years of Conservative leadership under Stephen Harper, and the 2015 race was cast as a choice for two very different Canadas. Mr. Trudeau went further left than the leftist New Democrats (NDP) on spending promises, at the same time offering an overhaul of the electoral system. He promised a feminist, climate-friendly government that would create a haven for refugees in need – not to mention he said he’d legalize marijuana.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Hundreds of pipes for the Trans Mountain pipeline construction are stacked on railroad cars on July 4, 2019, in Edson, Alberta. The Trans Mountain pipeline is pitting environmentalists against the oil and gas industry most locals support.

It was a “change election,” says Shachi Kurl, executive director of the Angus Reid Institute, a nonpartisan polling firm. And Mr. Trudeau embodied the change perfectly. “He at the time was the youngest leader. He was the fresh face.”

Now the election has been recast for many Canadians, essentially a choice for the least bad option. “Are voters sufficiently dissatisfied ... to vote out the Liberals? I think that’s the question,” says Livianna Tossutti, a political science professor at Brock University in St. Catharines, a bellwether federal district, or “riding,” in the Niagara region that flipped to Mr. Trudeau from the Conservatives in the last election. Now, mirroring the federal race overall, the two major parties are neck and neck.

“Trudeau has got to work a lot harder”

Any incumbent will have disappointed a swath of voters. But two scandals this year have been particularly damaging. The one that grabbed global headlines came this fall, after Time magazine ran a photo of Mr. Trudeau in brownface as a 29-year-old teacher. But for Canadians the SNC-Lavalin affair, in which Mr. Trudeau sought to shield a Quebec engineering firm from prosecution, was more damning. It pitted him against Jody Wilson-Raybould, his justice minister and the first indigenous person to hold the post. She was then ousted from the Liberal caucus, angering voters who suddenly questioned whether his feminist credentials, support for indigenous issues, and pledge to do politics differently were anything more than campaign buzzwords.

Hope Tuff-Berg, a student at Brock University in St. Catharines, was a delegate this spring with Daughters of the Vote, an event that invites 338 young women from each of Canada’s federal ridings to sit in the House of Commons. The event happened as Ms. Wilson-Raybould, as well as former cabinet member Jane Philpott, were kicked out of the Liberal party. She and several other women turned their backs on Mr. Trudeau as he addressed the delegates, what she calls an act of silent protest. “He did make the first gender-balanced cabinet, and to remove two women because they wouldn’t follow through with his orders, we thought was wrong,” she says.

Like former President Barack Obama’s message of hope that captivated young Americans, in Canada Mr. Trudeau’s 2015 campaign had galvanized progressive young voters: 57% of those between ages 18 and 34 cast ballots in 2015, compared with 39% in the 2011 race, and the highest percentage of that went to the Liberals.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Cecil Dawson, a wood carver in Port Alberni, British Columbia, does not believe in the way that reconciliation has been framed by the government, but he says it's brought attention to the work they are doing to restore culture and language. “A lot of people thought we were dead and gone because they've seen us in the natural history museum,” he says. “They didn’t even know we were here.”

Ms. Tuff-Berg, who started the nonprofit First Vote in St. Catharines to rally new voters like herself to the polls, says much of the buzz today is around other candidates, such as Elizabeth May of the Greens and NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.

Mr. Singh is the “fresh face” this race. Just 40, he is a Sikh and the first non-white minority to lead a major political party. And he has gracefully dealt with racism directed at him during the campaign. “I think it’s a very different election. I think Trudeau has got to work a lot harder for the youth vote,” Ms. Tuff-Berg says.

Their vote is key this year. Millennials comprise the largest voting block in Canada, or 37% of eligible voters. And the percentage of those saying they will vote Liberal has slipped to 27%, compared with 39% for the NDP, according to a recent DART & Maru/Blue poll, reflecting a federal uptick for the NDP. As the center-left vote fractures, political analysts are increasingly talking about the prospects of a coalition government.

On the Brock University campus on a recent day, second-year dramatic arts student Matthew Martin says that when his generation was introduced to the voting system, they were given two options: Conservatives or Liberals. Often times Canadians will strategically vote for one of those two parties, instead of their first choice, to ensure their “worst scenario” doesn’t prevail. He says he refuses to participate in that. “The other options always existed, but there was a perception that they didn’t. Now we are becoming aware that we don’t have to be stuck with just these two,” says the first-time voter. “When my dad asks, ‘Are you voting Liberal or Conservative?,’ now I can tell him, ‘What about the NDP?’”

Deep fault lines

Mr. Trudeau’s challenges lie not just in scandals or political fracturing but about the mood – where lofty rhetoric of the 2015 race led to bold promises that have been left only partially filled. His decision to buy the Trans Mountain pipeline in 2018 to get product from oil-rich Alberta to British Columbia was a turning point both for environmentalists and many indigenous groups who suddenly questioned the authenticity of his environmental pledges.

Stéphanie Chouinard, an assistant professor of politics at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, says the Trudeau government has been unable to promote its achievements because they have been overshadowed by unmet promises. Reconciliation with indigenous people, who along with young voters came out in droves for the Liberals in 2015, is an example, she says.

“If you think of, for example, access to clean water on reserves, they haven’t attained 100% access,” she says, “but they have done a lot in four years and a lot more than the Harper government had done in the previous decade. So this is something to celebrate, but they’re probably keeping quiet in light of the fact that other issues are clouding that, Trans Mountain being one of them.”

That disappointment is keenly felt in coastal British Columbia among those who would be most affected by the pipeline. “He showed a lot of promise, and a lot of it is not unfolding in the way he said it would,” says Cecil Dawson, who was in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island this spring, helping to create a totem pole in honor of indigenous languages. “It’s just like a first date, where there is good behavior, and then you start to find out about each other after a while.”

Mr. Trudeau is also contending with a more deeply polarized society in this cycle. In part that’s because of his name. Pierre Trudeau, his father and a former prime minister, angered western provinces like Alberta over energy policy, so when Mr. Trudeau implemented a carbon tax, for example, a sense of what’s called “western alienation” was amplified.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff
Lorie Simmerson, a store manager from Red Deer, Alberta, saw off the "United We Roll" convoy that departed from Ottawa this winter to protest Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's carbon tax. "They have no idea," she says of the Liberal Party. "Everything they use, that they have, or that they drive, depends on oil. They are all willing to talk. But none of them are willing to walk the walk and go without these products."

Today, deep fault lines split Canadian society into “east” and “west,” far more so than the divides between Quebec and the rest of the confederation today. Lorie Simmerson, a small store manager who was heading to the stands for the rodeo at the Calgary Stampede this summer, is an example of a voter motivated to see Mr. Trudeau ousted. “I would go totally for Alberta to separate if Trudeau gets back in, and everyone I know feels the same way,” she says.

This campaign has done little to mend those rifts, with the parties spending large amounts of their time talking to their bases or attacking opponents. “They’re making strategic promises instead of putting forward a broader vision for what their government would eventually look like. And this is one of the other big differences between the 2015 and the 2019 election,” says Professor Chouinard. “It’s a very uninspired campaign so far.”

Yet if there is clear disillusionment with the political class, Professor Tossutti in St. Catharines says that relativity could boost Mr. Trudeau when it comes time to vote. Canadians, she says, still see their country as a hopeful place.

“If you look to the south with the debates that are tearing apart the United States, you look to Europe with the Brexit debate that are wrenching apart that particular country, you look to the rise of right-wing populism in many of the European states as well as slower growth rates and some of the demographic pressures that those states are facing and their economic challenges,” she says, “we’re in a pretty privileged position, and I think Canadians recognize that.”

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