It could have been worse for Justin Trudeau. In the 2019 Canadian election, Trudeau has held on to power through a minority government gained on 33 percent of the popular vote, a lower percentage than the runner ups, the Conservatives under Andrew Scheer. While the result might be a surprise outside of Canada, it shouldn’t be. The Trudeau brand has always been more popular among some internationally than in his own country. In his 2015 election victory, his party won a majority government with just under 40 percent of the vote.
A surge in turnout, especially by first-time voters, fuelled Trudeau’s 2015 victory. The reality of governing inevitably diminished such enthusiasm. The Liberals have long had a reputation of campaigning from the left while governing from the right-of-centre. Thus, the Trudeau Liberals soon after the previous election reneged on a promise to reform Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system. The government also experienced a major scandal around Liberal efforts to protect a Montreal engineering firm from full legal sanction over alleged corruption. This led to cabinet resignations, including by Jody Wilson-Raybould, the highest profile Indigenous member of the cabinet. The Prime Minister found his own brand tarnished by personal behaviour, such as images of him in blackface, which seemed incompatible with his cultivated image as the ultimate progressive. Most significantly, especially for the future, efforts at balancing incompatible regional tensions wore the government down.
Elections as far back as 1921 have displayed Canada’s regional divisions. These have often appeared in the form of Quebec nationalism and alienation across western Canada in response to the dominance of central Canada. In 2019, these divisions have emerged again. In Quebec, a nationalist party, the Bloc Québécois, written off as dead in the previous election, gained 22 seats and helped deprive the Liberals of the chance at a majority government. Its surge came through demanding greater autonomy for the province and by supporting popular efforts by the provincial government to legislate for greater secularism in the public sphere such as the banning of the wearing religious symbols by public servants.
Quebec is also a hotbed of growing Canadian concern about climate change. This directly pits the province against the interests of the oil-producing parts of the country. In the same way that global fossil fuel production is not sustainable because of the climate emergency, the ongoing tension in Canada between oil interests, centred in the provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan, and the desperate need to address a major cause of global heating is not viable. The Trudeau government tried to have it both ways over the past four years. It expressed concern about climate change and trumpeted its green credentials by instituting a carbon tax to encourage a reduction in fossil fuel consumption. At the same time, it spent billions to purchase a pipeline to help Alberta’s oil to reach energy markets. The party’s approach pleased neither side and tonight the Liberals lost MPs in Quebec while failing to elect any in Saskatchewan and Alberta.
That these tensions play out on a regional basis makes the long-term viability of Canada precarious. Historically, Canada is a settler state built upon the production of staples that have ranged from furs to fish to timber to wheat. A major current one is oil but its consumption is a direct threat to the future of the planet. Going forward, a country that exists because of a staple that threatens the sustainability of humanity may find itself driven into extinction first.