When a cofounder of Black Lives Matter Toronto called Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau “a white supremacist” at a rally in 2017, her accusation drew swift reaction from the commentariat. Conservative Canadian journalists raced to denounce her, while others demanded that she step down from Black Lives Matter Toronto. Just one week before, Trudeau had publicly rebuked Trump and his Muslim ban with this now-famous tweet: “To those fleeing persecution, terror & war, Canadians will welcome you, regardless of your faith. Diversity is our strength #WelcomeToCanada.” How could he possibly be a white supremacist?
But there was a dangerous lack of policy behind Trudeau’s feel-good tweet. The government did not, in fact, plan to increase its refugee quotas. Instead, Trudeau’s Liberal Party had turned its back on Canada’s migrant justice movements and rejected visa applications at higher rates than previous governments, sent representatives abroad to discourage people from coming to Canada, refused to budge on calls to end the Safe Third Country Agreement, and continued Canada’s indefinite detention of migrants.
Three photos of Trudeau in blackface later, the mainstream media is finally waking up to just how thin the Liberal leader’s progressive veneer has always been.
If Americans were shocked by these pictures, many Canadians were simply wearied. Canada has a long, storied tradition of racism. It also has a long, storied tradition of ignoring its long, storied tradition of racism. And Canadian media—dominated, as it is, by white journalists—dutifully serves both traditions. For left-leaning activists in Canada, seeing Trudeau in blackface was just the latest confirmation of what they’d known all along: Despite the PR gloss, Trudeau’s Liberals were never planning to be the agents of “real change” and “sunny ways” they messaged so well on the 2015 campaign trail. As Montreal-based journalist Martin Lukacs details in his new book, The Trudeau Formula: Seduction and Betrayal in an Age of Discontent, the Liberals have maintained Canada’s status quo—racism included.
On October 21, Canadians will head to the polls in a federal election that many see as a referendum on Trudeau’s government. The last time around, voters were desperate to boot out Stephen Harper’s Conservative majority, and many saw the Liberals—led by political scion Trudeau—as their best shot. Trudeau’s woke cosplay helped win over both centrists and disillusioned progressives alike. But voters should have no illusions about the Liberals’ track record. In the last four years, Trudeau has broken nearly all the progressive promises his party campaigned on. His climate policy has been called “climate change denial with a human face.” He has shirked his promises to indigenous communities about reconciliation, betraying indigenous people on multiple fronts. His party has turned its back on workers and unions, while pursuing free-trade agreements and reinforcing an economic agenda that does little to attack the roots of precarious work or inequality.
And, of course, there was that ethics scandal, in which Trudeau used a controversial parliamentary process—one that the Liberals once called “undemocratic” and promised to abolish during the 2015 campaign—in order to pass a law allowing a Quebec-based construction company to evade prosecution for bribing Libyan officials. Trudeau was eventually caught pressuring his attorney general to cooperate; when she and a fellow cabinet member resigned in protest, Trudeau responded by expelling both women from the party.
But Trudeau’s ultimate betrayal was reneging on his party’s promise to “make every vote count.” The Liberals made reforming Canada’s electoral system a pillar of their 2015 platform. The current “first-past-the-post,” winner-takes-all system has long been criticized for producing false majorities in Parliament. But really making every vote count—which would require shifting to a form of proportional representation—would have hurt his party’s chances at winning another majority. So Trudeau abandoned electoral reform, and threw two more women in his cabinet off the glass cliff in the process.
As Lukacs argues, Trudeau’s “formula” has always been to say one thing while doing another. When his party’s volte-face is scrutinized, Trudeau attempts to rationalize his actions to Canadians by appealing to an abstract moral calculus. His party’s controversial pipeline purchase must be sound climate policy, so long as Canada keeps its carbon tax and plants a billion trees.
This is a symptom of the Liberal Party’s blundering entitlement. The Liberals assume they can get away with equivocating because terrified voters will cast so-called “strategic” votes for their candidates. And they might be right: The Conservative Party of Canada—led by cozy-with-Faith-Goldy pro-lifer Andrew Scheer—has spent the last few weeks alternately milking the blackface scandal or defending racists in the party. And Maxime Bernier, leader of the new ultra-right, populist People’s Party of Canada, was given a last-minute spot on the official debate stage this week, despite not meeting the initial qualifying criteria. In light of these alternatives, Trudeau and many of his centrist supporters want progressive Canadians to stick with the devil they know.
Nonetheless, Trudeau’s blackface photos, and the hypocrisy they helped expose, could still translate into serious electoral consequences. Pundits and polls seem to agree that it will be much harder this time around for the Liberals to snag another majority. Still unclear, though, is who else would make up the resulting minority government. The Liberal and Conservative parties remain neck and neck in current polls, ahead of the four other parties competing for seats. But Trudeau and Scheer both face serious competition from the left. Jagmeet Singh—leader of the social democratic NDP and Canada’s first federal leader of color—keeps winning the debates, has stood up to racism he’s faced on the campaign trail, and has shamed Trudeau for encouraging Canadians to vote strategically. The climate-focused Greens, led by Elizabeth May, hold just two seats in Parliament but are vying for NDPers’ votes, though the party faces criticism for hazy views on abortion among its ranks. Neither the Greens nor the NDP has ever won a federal election, although the NDP has formed the official opposition party once before. And then there’s the question of Quebec, Canada’s wild card, where increased support for the Quebec separatist party means there’s no guarantee the Liberals will win all the seats they need.
With just under 10 days left until the election, Canada’s progressive opposition should focus on cultivating and strengthening the possibilities on offer. As Singh hits his stride as a party leader and picks up points in the polls, many NDP candidates are showcasing bold, progressive policies in local races, challenging the Liberals while pushing their own party’s platform further to the left. These insurgent candidates, many with roots in Canada’s social and labor movements, understand that election campaigns are the right time to advance and evolve complex policies. Indeed, a broad coalition of youth climate justice activists was responsible for pushing the NDP to shift its climate policy from focusing on single-use plastics to adopting a Green New Deal—or, as the NDP calls it, a “New Deal for People.” Elections are also the right time for organizers to build and reinforce the grassroots movements and civic institutions necessary to build the widespread popular support required to hold elected candidates accountable.
The reality is that Trudeau’s status quo isn’t working for most Canadians—but Canada’s flawed electoral system boosts his electability anyway. The aftermath of his recent foibles could also serve as an important object lesson for the United States, where commentators and pollsters push voters to support “electable” candidates, since surely anyone is better than Trump. But real wins on the left would require an altogether different kind of strategic voting: the kind that kicks establishment logic and progressive PR to the curb.